Chinese Medicine for Emotional Healing

Will Fudeman
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Chinese medicine offers one proven path to emotional balance and harmony for many people who struggle with anxiety or depression. Many people who receive treatment from a licensed acupuncturist experience significant benefit, and don’t need to take psychiatric drugs.

To be clear, acupuncture, qi gong practice and Chinese herbs are not an alternative to therapy, but rather, they can provide an excellent complement that supports the healing work done in therapy. When a person comes into my office presenting a complex and persistent pattern of behaving in ways that undermine their progress and deepen feelings of low self-esteem, a course of therapy is often useful to help the person learn more effective strategies to deal with their lives. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can provide some of those strategies.  I do believe that treatment with Chinese medicine is frequently an effective alternative to psychotropic medications, especially for people whose complaints and symptoms are not too severe.

Please don’t think I’m saying that psychotropic medications never have a useful role; there are serious situations where an experienced psychiatrist can prescribe a powerful drug or combination of drugs that might provide more rapid relief than other approaches. Acute psychotic episodes where a person feels extremely suicidal may be situations where short term use of psychiatric drugs will provide more rapid relief of extreme symptoms than treatment with acupuncture and herbs.

I’m not the first person to claim that anti-depressants are over-prescribed in our society. Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Psychiatric Drugs, Magic Bullets and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (Crown Publishers, 2010) should be required reading for every person who prescribes medications and who refers people struggling with emotional problems to psychiatrists. People who complain to their western medicine doctor of feeling low (often with good reason, after the death of a loved one or the break-up of a committed love relationship) may be prescribed a drug because that’s something the doctor can do in a brief visit, and the patient is expecting some tangible “help.” A prescription may be interpreted as “help.” And, it’s possible that the drug may cause a different problem (loss of libido is common), while not addressing the person’s actual condition, which might just be needing somebody to listen to and witness their pain and grief.

People who have found pharmaceutical relief from long-standing emotional problems might balk at any suggestion that they give up what is finally helping them lead more satisfying lives. Given that large numbers of people find these drugs less effective over time or never get satisfying relief of their depression or anxiety, it’s important to offer alternative approaches that have been useful for large numbers of people for centuries before pharmaceuticals were invented. When it proves difficult to stop taking drugs, acupuncture and Chinese herbs can help make the process of cutting back and eventually quitting medications less difficult.

Stephen Cowan, an MD pediatrician who treats children with acupuncture, herbs and other creative strategies, offers a compelling framework to understand how to support different kinds of children to experience greater self-esteem and increased attention for academic tasks in his book Fire Child/Water Child (New Harbinger). Given the potentially life-long problems that can be associated with prolonged use of powerful pharmaceuticals, Cowan’s book could be a worthwhile read for parents and their children’s care-givers.

Most of the evidence that Chinese medicine works to alleviate anxiety and depression comes from a long history of anecdotal evidence. A 2012 review published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry states  “…acupuncture may be a safe and effective treatment… (for Major Depressive Disorder, but )… the body of evidence from well-designed studies is limited and further investigation is called for.”  The evidence for the health benefits of Qi Gong and Tai Chi is more extensive.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

18 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t have much experience with herbs and acupuncture, but I have more experience with chi kung (qi gong) and tai chi chuan. I’ve sometimes mentioned I currently practice zen meditation, but I try to also tell people it may be not be the best choice for treating mental problems or drug withdrawal as such, at least in the way it often practiced. It may too hard, ardous, “anvanced”, etc, for many situations like this, at least in the way it is currently practiced. I’ve now heard many stories of people getting admitted for psychosis after doing severe zen practice in my local school, even though these are often related to very hard practice, such as doing a daily practice or going to intensive retreats.

    I’ve also read similar comments from some “gurus” of this field. For instance, one of them said that you shouldn’t do zen meditation if you’re constantly depressed or anxious. He recommended to first practice kungfu to get your body in shape. Then later on you should move to chi kung, which when practiced in a right manner is kind of a combination of movement, meditation and mindfulness. There are actually a huge number of these techniques, some more relaxed and flowery, some done for improving martial efficiency. And then you should move to zen meditation. I don’t say I really have enough experience to confirm this though. I think there’s huge potential to change your mind and body with this type of exercises, just keep in mind that if you’re using them to heal yourself from great distress, anxiety, etc, some of the hardest techniques and authoritarian schools, etc, may not be the best technique in that situation. A gentler technique may work better at that point of life. I think that chi kung techniques could be developed to at least as efficient technique for therapy in Western society as current mindfulness therapies done. Well, they have lots in common to begin with.

    I know chi kung or tai chi chuan may look silly on video, but it’s not just those bodily movements. Just doing those movements like they’re done externally is not enough, you’re supposed to work inside your mind at the same time, learn to get into the relaxed state of mind, etc. In a way, it’s another system you can use to retrain your mind/body complex (neuroplasticity, etc). Maybe similar to hatha yoga.

    • You point out some things that I believe are very important. Mindfulness is the rage in therapy now where I live. Every therapist you hear about is doing “mindfulness therapy.” From practical experience of dealing with mindfulness and Buddhism for almost forty years now, it’s a lot more difficult to practice than I think these therapists are letting on. I do believe that it can be a healing process for many of us but I think that the insights people must attain take some time for Westerners to discover. True, they are right there in front of our very nose, waiting inside for us to find, but that search takes a different way of looking at things from the way that many of us were raised.

      When I ask people who are engaged with mindfulness therapy what it’s like and how well it’s working for them I hear a lot of disappointment in the way people talk about it. They don’t seem to be having a great deal of success with their “therapy.” I fear that mindfulness therapy is the latest fad among therapists, much like CBT seems to be in other areas of the United States. We’re behind in the latest fads and trends where I live. I’m not putting either down, but I think things can become the latest trend in all of this.

      Thanks for sharing the information about chi kung and tai chi chuan. I’m certainly no expert on mindfulness and Buddhism but I have th feeling that Zen is a huge challenge and could be very difficult for people seeking healing. However, every person is unique and individual so who knows. Anything can be used in the wrong way, no matter how simple and benign it may be.

      • I personally currently do use zazen (Zen meditation) for healing, transforming my mind, etc. I’m not saying it doesn’t work for that. There’s many kinds of Zen Buddhism and practices of zazen. I’m just saying that what they’re doing in many of those Zen Buddhism schools, and also other intensive meditation schools in Buddhism, may be too intense and not not really useful for people with severe mental problems or coming out of drugs. For instance, I went to one local Zen school and even the beginners had to sit 30 minutes in a strict single position watching the wall doing their practice (such as counting breath), then a short walk, then 30 minutes more. On some days, there was a third round of that. And after maybe six months the more enthusiastic people start to go to more intensive retreats, or even go living in a modern version of monastery.

        Maybe what I think is that the hardcore way zazen is practiced in many of these places is not the best bet for healing. Much of Zen comes from monasteric tradition and aims for enlightenment, not for curing “mental illnesses”. At the same time, it has many great practices which could be useful also for treating mental problems.

        I’ve not gone much down to this mindfulness therapy, but I’m not against it, I think it’s a positive thing that they’re trying this type of things in Western therapy situation. I really haven’t studied it more thoroughly, but for instance Jon Kabat-Zinn has been a serious Zen practitioner and he has been a great leading force behind this mindfulness therapy thing. But I admit I really haven’t studied him or this system of mindfulness therapy.

        In any case, I can say these Chinese practices of tai chi chuan, kungfu and and chi kung, and also the more Japanese kind of zazen, have all helped me in this path. I don’t need the stuff I think is included in that mindfulness therapy, because I think my current practice includes all or at least most if it.

        There can be many reason why that kind of therapy doesn’t work for everyone. Maybe some people just are too much “Western” in their nature, that kind of practices don’t help or interest them enough. They just don’t “get it” or in other ways don’t find it useful. Maybe some people expect too much too soon. Maybe people don’t have the understanding, life-situation or discipline to make it a daily habit. Maybe they expect too much too soon, then go back to their old habits. The point is creating new habits in your mind/brain! It won’t come with without effort.

        So in general, I’m positive about this mindfulness therapy movement, I’m also positive about thinking about how other Eastern techniques could be used for treating or, even better, preventing these Western mental illnesses.

  2. Respectfully, I think it’s important to note that in general, Chinese medications that affect mental health technically are themselves psychotropic medications – they’re just psychotropic medications with a different kind of evidence base behind them than those that are generally prescribed by Western allopathic doctors. Some of them people may feel have a longer history of use, and that may be comforting. At the same time, there are ways that Western medications are tested that they generally have not been – and at the very least, it’s not always clear that what they have been seen to do in one context and population (eg, China over the past 500 years) is going to predict how they will affect someone in a new context (eg, a modern American who is likely to have a different diet, different lifestyle, different list of health risk factors, and different set of exposures to other medications and toxins from, say, your typical Chinese man from 1800).

    While I (a practicing psychiatrist) have plenty of worries about the short and long term impacts of our most commonly used medications (thus my presence of this webpage), I also have a very healthy respect for – and level of concern about – psychotropic medications that have emerged from other medical traditions. A purified chemical / compound that affects brain function is not something to just assume is safe, wherever it comes from.

    • I agree that caution is needed before taking some (usually herbal) medication from another medical tradition. But it is really unfortunate that there is little or no funding to research the effectiveness and safety of these drugs (for they are drugs). Given how long they have been used, and the anecdotal evidence that at least some people benefit, it’s a great loss that we don’t have enough solid evidence about these substances.

    • RCHK,

      Considering the *fact* that many of the symptoms of so-called “mental” illnesses have as their root cause intestinal absorption or other physical problem, healing can take place in many ways.

      Also, although herbs, along with vitamins and minerals can have fallout, it’s important to keep this is perspective.

      For instance, there are over 100,000 deaths per year from prescription drugs, *taken as directed*! So many deaths, that they are the 4th leading cause of death! –

      http://commonground.ca/2012/01/prescription-drug-deaths/

      In stark contrast, there are (statistically averaged) *zero* reported deaths reported from vitamins, minerals and herbs. –

      http://www.doctoryourself.com/nodeaths.html

      Herbs are the same as psychotropic drugs?
      Really?
      Do the math.

      Disclaimer: See Commission E Monographs comment below. Also, obviously, it is best to see a practitioner in Chinese medicine.

      Duane

  3. Re: Herbs and Safety

    The American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas sells the Commission E Monographs.

    Commission E approves and disapproves herbs. The monographs list possible herbal side effects, drug interactions, counter-indications, etc.

    I purchased a copy (translated from original German text) through the American Botanical Council a while back and would highly recommend it for anyone who wants to study herbs and understand their benefits and risks. –

    http://cms.herbalgram.org/commissione/index.html

    Duane

  4. Thank you for the interesting article.

    With TCM, it isn’t the acupuncture and herbs that interest me. It’s the methods of diagnosis and the medical theory behind it that are the real story. TCM points to mechanisms by which organ disorders can cause/contribute to psychiatric illness. And without the theory and tools of TCM, mainstream doctors cannot diagnose/detect these imbalances.

    Even the kneejerk criticisms are ignorant. For a chronic illness, the herbal recipes prescribed normally aim to rebalance the organs. Their intended effect is not to affect the brain. Indeed, TCM theory mostly ignores the brain, and focuses on the other organs.

    For my own part, I suffered a decade of psychiatric illness, culminating with a two month stint in a acute pych ward – the official diagnosis then was bipolar psychosis. Some time later, I divorced myself from that system to work solely with my TCM doctor. When the psychiatrist rang my parents in order to gain their support to have me committed, his prognosis was that I “wouldn’t make it through winter”. They declined. And here I am 12 years later, still doing well on TCM herbs. And in an age of bogus clinical studies, actual results for the patient are the strongest evidence.

    To those who are skeptical, you still miss the point. TCM theory points to causes of psychiatric illness that are ignored by the mainstream. Deserving of research funding, not uninformed criticism.

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